In the 42nd Psalm, the writer expresses his yearning for God, and tells about the depth of his distress. The words in verse 5, and again in verse 11 of that Psalm, are at the heart of the cry: “Why art thou cast down, O my soul?” One translation says, “Why be so discouraged and sad?”
The 42nd Psalm was written to encourage us to hope in God—to remember God’s goodness, and to think of His faithfulness, and to simply trust Him for the future. Discouragement (by definition) is a gloomy and dejected frame of mind that comes when one feels deprived of hope and confidence. Discouragement, if nurtured and fed, can grow into despair—even to the point of needing medication to survive.
1. Reasons For Discouragement
It is safe to say that all of us at some time or another have had to deal with some degree of discouragement. There are several reasons for discouragement.
a) A distorted, self-centered nature
By nature, all of us to a degree are immature and self-centered. God is not finished with any of us yet. Even a small child is self-centered. Small children are cute, but they are self-centered. The child believes that all things exist for him. He wants what he wants when he wants it. He wants his bottle, his mother’s attention, his uncle’s watch, his playmate’s toys, etc. If you deny a child what he wants, he often gets angry and sometimes goes into temper tantrums. The child would be dangerous if he were not so small and so helpless.
Because we are human, we find it easy to pity ourselves, and to give in to the pull of the flesh nature. Sometimes we feel that we have not been treated right, and so we pity ourselves. Or, we sense that we don’t always have victory over certain bad habits, and so we brood over our lack of self-control.
After speaking carelessly, we say, “There I go again; I made a mistake one more time,” or, “I skipped my Bible reading again today”—and we get discouraged because of a lack of victory.
In response, we must repent and confess our wrongs and set new goals—and move on. The Christian life is a series of new beginnings! We must not give up in fighting our inner corruptions.
b) Failure to embrace the sovereignty of God
Some folks seem to believe that human beings are the mere playthings of fate. They think of men and women as creatures without purpose or goal in the universe. Life is just a sequence of good-and-bad-luck experiences. But the genuine Christian can keep calm even when he goes through trials and testings, because he knows that the promises of God are true, and that our Heavenly Father is in supreme control.
Disappointment can be a traumatic experience.
- A beloved family member dies at an early age.
- A young husband learns that he must have serious surgery.
- Finances decrease during hard times, and people are laid off from their jobs.
These things can be discouraging. The question often asked at such times is this: Can I trust God? Does He have it all together? Or, is He up there biting His nails wondering what is happening here on earth?
c) Deliberate attacks by Satan himself
You can be sure that at some point along life’s journey, the devil will do his best to plant in your mind the thought that you’ve been a complete failure.
The young couple that has several children early in their marriage, all born close together, feels trapped by the heavy responsibilities of raising a family. They discover that little babies are not always “soft little bundles of love,” but that small children can be noisy, fussy, and demanding creatures—and sometimes the parents think they must be doing everything wrong. And when children get older, they can be defiant and stubborn, often demanding their own way.
Satan will try to get us to castigate ourselves and become discouraged because the family does not seem to be turning out well. But things are generally not as bad as they may seem in their worst moments. We must not let gloom become a way of life.
And so, some of the sources of discouragement include a distorted, self-centered nature, failure to embrace the sovereignty of God, and deliberate attempts by Satan to discourage us.
2. Bible Examples of Discouragement
There were several persons in Bible times who were deeply discouraged. We want to look at their experiences.
a) Moses succumbed to discouragement.
We would think that Moses was a man who was above discouragement. Moses had observed the plagues that God brought upon Pharaoh and the people of Egypt. Moses had seen God lead the Israelites out of Egypt on the dry land through the Red Sea. Moses had communicated with God in a brief encounter on Mt. Sinai when he received the Ten Commandments.
If any person should have been above discouragement, it was Moses. And yet, in Numbers 11, we see Moses so defeated and so discouraged that he cried out, in essence, “If this is how you are going to deal with me, kill me, I pray . . . and let me not see my wretchedness” (Numbers 11:15).
The thing that brought on this discouragement was the mixed multitude of people (Numbers 11:4-5) who had traveled along with the Israelites out of Egypt. They longed for the fish, cucumbers, melons and onions of Egypt, and in their rebellion, they cried out against the Lord and against Moses (Numbers 11:10). Moses became preoccupied with the criticism; he saw every complaint as a personal attack against him. He forgot about the faithfulness of God, and how God had promised that He would provide for Israel, and protect them on their wilderness journey. And, as a matter of fact, God did come to the aid of Moses, described in Numbers 11:16-20. God provided seventy men to help Moses, and He sent food for the complaining people. There was no reason for Moses to be discouraged.
b) Elijah fell victim to discouragement.
God had called Elijah to be a prophet, but it seemed as if the entire nation had gone after Jezebel, and the idols which she brought with her from her pagan background.
Without apology, Elijah declared himself to be a messenger of God (the true and living God)—and in a showdown with the false prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel, Elijah set out to prove to Ahab and Jezebel that the God of Israel was the only true God! The prophets of Baal were defeated in a dramatic display of God’s power. They cried all morning to their pagan gods, but when Elijah prayed, God immediately sent fire from heaven which consumed the sacrifice on the altar.
When Jezebel learned what happened, she was angry—and she retaliated by giving Elijah only 24 hours to live (1 Kings 19:2). She said, “So let the gods do to me, and more also, if I make not thy life as the life of one of them [the dead false prophets] by tomorrow about this time.” And Elijah was scared. He ran far into the wilderness and sat under a juniper tree, and prayed to God “that he might die” (1 Kings 19:4).
It may seem strange that this bold prophet was afraid, especially after the great victory on Mount Carmel, but Elijah was weary and exhausted, and the thought of one more battle (this time with the wicked queen) just overwhelmed him, and he was ready to quit. Elijah was a human being; he had emotions like we have (James 5:17), and he felt like giving up.
If we read on in 1 Kings 19, we learn that God ministered to Elijah’s need. The Lord sent an angel to encourage him, but the angel did not deal with his spiritual problem first. The angel did not tell Elijah to get down on his knees and pray; instead, the angel told him to get up and eat food, and then he’d be prepared to deal with the problem (1 Kings 19:5-7). And then God told Elijah to get busy in the work He had for him to do. It included anointing Hazael to be king over Syria, anointing Jehu to be king over Israel, and calling Elisha to be another prophet.
Surely this was not time for Elijah to be lying around in a cave feeling sorry for himself, and thinking that he was the only one left in Israel who was faithful to God (1 Kings 19:9-10,18). It was then that the Lord assured him that He had seven thousand who had not bowed the knee to Baal.
c) Jonah was also enslaved by discouragement.
Jonah was the prophet who landed in the belly of a great fish. After the experience in the fish’s belly, Jonah obeyed God and preached in the streets of Nineveh. The people of Nineveh repented and were delivered from judgment. But then, Jonah complained to God (Jonah 4:1-3). The Bible says that Jonah was greatly displeased. He knew that because the people repented, God would bless their country (Assyria), and that eventually Assyria may even overrun his own nation Israel.
Jonah lamented to God. He said, “I pray thee, O Lord, was not this my saying, when I was yet in my country? Therefore I fled before unto Tarshish: for I knew that thou art a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repentest thee of the evil. Therefore now, O Lord, take, I beseech thee, my life from me; for it is better for me to die than to live.” (The statement is found in Jonah 4:2-3.) Jonah was saying, “That’s why I went in the opposite direction in the first place, instead of going to Nineveh. I knew you are a gracious and compassionate God, and that you would bless Assyria if the people repented; now, O Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.” Jonah was discouraged because he saw things in terms of how they affected himself. He didn’t seem to care much about the judgment which could have fallen on the people of Nineveh.
Thus we have noticed that some of the noted men spoken about in the Bible were given to periods of discouragement.
3. Steps To Conquer Discouragement
There are some steps to take that should help us overcome discouragement. Maybe you have been rejected by your parents. Maybe you have a deplorable job with no chance for advancement. Maybe you married a self-centered and insensitive partner. Maybe you have some serious physical impairment. Maybe you are scared by the current world situation. To be delivered from discouragement, there are some steps to keep in mind.
a) Learn the art of being grateful in every situation.
It is important for us to recall God’s blessings and to remember God’s faithfulness. We should thank Him for what He has done even in the midst of trials and hard places. In 1 Thessalonians 5:18 we are told to give thanks “in everything.”
Murmuring and complaining are always condemned in the Scriptures; singing and praising God are always looked upon with favor. In Acts 16:25, Paul and Silas prayed and sang hymns at midnight, even though at that time they were fastened in stocks. The Scriptures continually admonish us to be thankful, not only for happy families and decent jobs and strong bodies—but also, we are to be thankful in the midst of life’s circumstances, even for deep disappointments. Thanksgiving is rooted in the belief that God is in control of everything that touches our lives.
There is nothing that will quicken the step of a tired and discouraged person like the singing of a hymn of thanks and praise to God.
b) Do something encouraging for others.
One of the things many of us can do is to write letters of encouragement, or make a simple phone call to those who are in the midst of discouragement.
J. B. Phillips was a man remembered for translating the New Testament into modern English by using a gripping style. He translated Romans 12:2 with these words: “Don’t let the world squeeze you into its own mold.” But throughout Phillips’ adult life, he struggled with dark periods of discouragement.
One day a letter came to Phillips’ home from a woman who had used his translation in her daily devotional reading, and for many years she had found it to be of great help. She wrote, “I can’t explain the compulsion I feel to write to you today, but I want so very much to thank you personally for the peace that your great effort has often brought to me, and for its challenge to my commitment to Christ and the church.”
Phillips answered with a few words of thanks for her encouraging letter, saying that, though she couldn’t explain her compulsion to write, perhaps he could. “I am in the midst of a depressive illness,” he said, “and I have noticed that the good Lord seems to arrange matters so that I get a letter such as yours at a time when I am tempted to feel that my life has been pretty useless.”
Perhaps there is a strange compulsion within one of you who is reading this article—to write or call someone and offer an expression of thanks for what that person means to you. If so, I encourage you to do it as soon as possible. It will bless your life.
c) Remember that God uses our problems for good purposes.
The Bible speaks of the unlimited power of God. He has sovereign control over the affairs of nature, and He works out His plan for each individual life.
Joseph (in Old Testament times) was hated and betrayed by his brothers. They sold him into Egypt. He was schemed against by Potiphar’s wife. He was unjustly locked up in prison, where he was ignored and forgotten. But God was in control! Eventually Joseph was freed, and became next in power to the king. And through God’s help, he was able to save Egypt and the surrounding nations from starvation.
The famine in the Mideast finally brought Joseph’s brothers down to Egypt to buy food, and in time, Joseph revealed his identity to his brothers. They remembered how they had hated him, and sold Joseph many years before—and they feared for their lives. But Joseph replied, “Now therefore be not grieved, nor angry with yourselves, that ye sold me hither: for God did send me before you to preserve life” (Genesis 45:5). Joseph said, “You sold me, but God sent me.”
Joseph knew the cure for discouragement. He knew that the Lord only allows those things to happen to us which will eventually work together for good, as the Apostle Paul says in Romans 8:28, when he says that “all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.”
The Bible from beginning to end teaches that God is completely sovereign; God is infinite in wisdom; God is perfect in love. God in His love always wills what is best for us; God in His wisdom always knows what is best for us; and God’s sovereignty enables Him to bring it about.
To have a simple trust in God, acknowledging that the circumstances of your life have not gotten out of the control of an all-wise God, is the major cure for discouragement. The God who cares for sparrows (Matthew 10:29-31) is screening the experiences of your life (and of my life), so that we are not the mere victims of fate.
Remember that adversity and difficult circumstances are not always an indication of sin in our lives. If we have sinned, the guilt can be removed by honest confession and genuine repentance (1 John 1:9). And we need to do that. We must repent, and confess our sins; we must not try and hide sin. But don’t let Satan lead you to believe that there must be a link between some sin in your life and the adversity you are facing. God often uses hard places to make good people even better.
In my judgment, there is little doubt that Joseph’s brothers needed punishment far more than Joseph did! They are the ones who sold him into Egypt, and lied to their father, and smeared goat’s blood on Joseph’s garment to make it look like an animal had killed him. Yet, as far as the record goes, none of the brothers suffered like Joseph suffered.
God, in His infinite skill, blends together the events of life in order to make us the kind of persons He wants us to be—and some day, by the grace of God, we shall say, “It has been good.”
It is just as important for us to trust God as it is for us to obey Him. When we disobey God, we defy His authority and despise His holiness. When we fail to trust God, we doubt His sovereignty and question His goodness. In both cases, we do an injustice to God’s majesty and His character. There is really no reason for our souls to be cast down!
Fanny Crosby, in one of her hymns, says:
“All the way my Saviour leads me;
What have I to ask beside?
Can I doubt His tender mercy,
Who through life has been my guide?
Heavenly peace, divinest comfort,
Here by faith in Him to dwell!
For I know what e’er befall me,
Jesus doeth all things well!”